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The Right — and Wrong Way — for a Business to Say Sorry

BP’s apology for spilling 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico came with a giant penalty. In addition to serving itself an enormous slice of humble pie, the company also agreed to set aside $20 billion to compensate those affected. That apology was then followed by a second apology, this time for the apology itself. Announcing the compensation, the company’s chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg had tried to stress that his firm really wasn’t like other oil giants:

“I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies who don’t care, but that is not the case in BP,” Svanberg said. “We care about the small people.”

Saying sorry never feels pleasant, and you might be forgiven for not thinking the most generous thoughts about the people you’re apologizing to, but it’s never a good idea to fold an additional insult into your regrets.

But even company chiefs whose mother-tongue is English can still struggle to say the words “I’m sorry” in a way that placates the masses. And it is necessary. Companies will make mistakes, some more serious than others, and if there’s one thing that PR pros can agree on it’s that when there’s a cock-up, firms should ignore the legal team and apologize fast.

Even Apple Isn’t Perfect

That’s not what Apple did, of course. When word began to spread that the iPhone 4 lost reception when held in a certain way, Steve Jobs could have responded by saying “Sorry to hear that. We’ll look into it.” Telling complainants to hold the phone differently — a way of saying it’s your fault if our phone doesn’t work — was hardly likely to make them feel better. Even when the company did get around to admitting that something might not be entirely right, its letter didn’t address the main issue. It took a snowball of media articles and an on-stage mea culpa from Steve Jobs himself to point out that even Apple isn’t perfect — and to hand out free bumpers.

And even then, Apple’s boss was keen to point out that everyone else was having the same problem and that his firm had gone to great lengths to test the phone’s reception. All of that might have been true but expectations of Apple are higher than those of its competitors so while they didn’t have to apologize, Apple did — and not doing it right away meant that the company had to wheel out the CEO and effectively say sorry for its response as well as for the error.

It might not be fair, but the expectations of an apology do differ from company to company. While small firms can get away with a small “Sorry, we’ll fix it,” big companies, whose mistakes affect larger numbers of people, have to move faster and speak louder.

Much though does depend on the nature of the mistake. That wasn’t the first time that Apple has had to squeeze out an apology. It has said sorry in the past for failing to meet delivery deadlines, regrets that rarely do the company any harm. On the contrary, apologizing that your products are so popular that you can’t make them fast enough is a bit like an interview subject admitting that his biggest weakness is his workaholism.

I’m Sorry We’re So Clever

But it only works well if the fault isn’t yours. Apple doesn’t manufacture its products; it only designs them then outsources the soldering to firms around the world, particularly in China. In effect then, while an apology for failing to meet demand is an admission of faulty planning, it also shifts the blame onto manufacturers while keeping the shoulder pats for your own smart thinking.

When the company is doing the heavy lifting as well as the smart thinking though, then an apology for delivery delays looks a lot worse. That’s just something that HTC, manufacturers of the Hero mobile phone will have to accept. The iPhone competitor is still running Android 1.5 even as competitors have moved on to 2.1 despite repeated promises of an upgrade. The apology might have been honest and welcome, but it does suggest  there’s a problem with the company that hasn’t been fixed.

As painful as that apology might have been to make it was still better delivered than the reaction to complaints on Facebook about AT&T’s lack of information regarding forthcoming Android releases. Challenged to reveal what was coming, one bright wag at the phone company decided that rather than apologize for the lack of information or even to offer an explanation, he would post a picture of the next great phone the company would offer. Not everyone found the response funny and the poster did eventually have to explain why AT&T was being so coy about its plans.

Good apologies then are direct and to the point. They’re also fast, as Google’s apology for launching Buzz in a way that revealed users’ contacts list was. And the very best are followed by quick action to remedy the error, another strategy followed by Google, which moved swiftly to close the privacy gaps and start again. Facebook was both slower and clumsier when it ran into its own privacy issues.

And compensation can be nice too but it’s not always necessary and it may not help to silence the critics. Ubisoft’s offer a free download to players of Assassin’s Creed 2 was generous, but until the server error that locked gamers out is fixed, users are going to remain angry. Unless of course, the company is willing to set aside $20 billion for them.

The best strategies when it comes to saying sorry then is to check so carefully before launch that you have to do it as rarely as possible. If the complaints do come in then make the apology fast and unambiguous (and without additional insults), and work to make things better even faster. However painful an apology might be to make, it’s a lot less painful than writing compensation checks.

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